Category Archives: education

Online competency-based education

Following up from my previous post on my experience with Coursera, here are a few links of interest (mostly) relating to online education, with a focus on “competency-based education”, i.e., education directed specifically at teaching people to become competent at one or more tasks or disciplines:

Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution” (Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen). Clayton Christensen is famous for his theory of “disruptive innovation”, which I think is useful not so much as a proven theory but rather as a way to structure plausible narratives about business success or failure. When Christensen fails in his predictions it’s usually because he doesn’t pay attention to things that don’t fit neatly into his preferred narratives. For example, he and co-author Michael Horn previously hyped for-profit education companies and failed to see that for many of them actually educating students was not the point. Rather those companies identified a “head I win, tails you lose” business proposition in “chasing Title IV money [i.e., government-subsidized student loans] in a federal financial aid system ripe for gaming”. This represents a second try by Christensen and his associates to forecast the future of post-secondary education.

The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure” (David Wiley). One of Clayton Christensen’s blind spots is that he tends to overlook what’s going on in the area of not for profit endeavors. In his blog “Iterating toward Openness” David Wiley covers the general area of open educational resources (or OER); this post is a good introduction to his thinking.

Web Literacy Map (Mozilla project). A real-world example of the sort of competency-based open education initiative that Wiley’s promoting. See also the Open Badges project, a Mozilla-sponsored initiative to create an open infrastructure for granting and publishing credentials.

A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job (Eduardo Porter for the New York Times). “Nanodegrees” are online education provider Udacity’s own take on competency-based education, created in cooperation with major employers.

Missing Links: How Coding Bootcamps Are Doing What Higher Ed and Recruiting Can’t” (Robert McGuire for SkilledUp). You may be beginning to see a trend here: A lot of the action in competency-based training is around software development, data science, and related fields. That’s because there’s high demand for skilled employees in certain fields and a lack of truly-focused traditional educational offerings to meet that demand. A related trend: Sites like SkilledUp that are trying to be become trusted guides to these new-style offerings.

Last but not least, here are some other people’s reviews of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization courses on Coursera that I’m currently taking:

From a local point of view these changes (if indeed they continue and are amplified) are not likely to affect high-end universities like Johns Hopkins; they’ll survive based on their ability to select the most talented applicants and plug them into a set of networks that will maximize their chances of success.1 The question is rather how they’ll affect institutions like Howard Community College that serve a broader student population that’s looking to acquire job-relevant skills.

1. Note that from this point of view online offerings like the John Hopkins Data Science Specialization help to promote the institution and identify potential applicants. In fact, just this week I received an email from the Bloomberg School of Public Health inviting me to attend one of their “virtual info sessions” for people considering applying.

Adventures in online education

The last three months or so I’ve been in school (which is why I haven’t been posting as much lately). Not a real bricks-and-mortar school—I’ve been participating in the “Data Science Specialization” series of online courses created by faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and offered by Coursera, a startup in the online education space. It’s been an interesting experience, and well worth a blog post.

The obvious first question is, why I am doing this? Mainly because I thought it would be fun. I was an applied mathematics (and physics) major in college, enjoyed the courses I had in probability, statistics, stochastic processes, etc., and wanted to revisit what I had learned and (for the most part) forgotten. It’s one of my hobbies—a (bit) more active one than watching TV or reading. Also, I’ve done some minor fiddling about with statistics on the blog (for example, looking at Howard County election data), am thinking about doing some more in the future, and wanted to have a better grounding in how best to do this. Finally, “data scientist” is one of the most hyped job categories in the last few years, and even though I probably won’t have much occasion to use this stuff in my current job it certainly can’t hurt to learn new skills in anticipation of future jobs.

The next question is, why an online course? Because I didn’t have the time (or the money) to commit to attending an in-person class, but I wanted the structure that a formal class provides. I’ve been (re)learning linear algebra out of a textbook for over four years now, and I still haven’t gotten past chapter 3. Part of the reason is that I’m doing every exercise and blogging about it, but mainly it’s that I don’t have an actual deadline to finish my studies. In the Coursera series there are nine courses, each lasting a month, with quizzes every week and course projects every 2-4 weeks depending on the course. I’ve been doing pretty well in the courses thus far and don’t want to spoil my record. For example, the first project in the current class was due Sunday but I was concerned about missing the deadline and so finished it last Friday night.

I like the way the series of courses is structured as well, not just as a class in statistics (only) but covering the whole range of skills needed to wrangle with data in its various forms, not least including the problems of getting datasets and cleaning them up. Each class thus far has only been a month long, so the time commitment is not that great and I know any work I do today will pay off in a completed course not too far down the road. It is a fairly serious commitment of time though, especially since the course video lectures cover only a fraction of what you need to know in order to do the course projects and correctly answer the more difficult quiz questions. I’ve probably spent almost 10 hours each week working on various aspects of the classes, including doing a copious amount of Internet searching to find out the additional information I need. But it’s been time well-spent: I feel like I’m getting a good understanding of how to do “data science” tasks—not that I know everything, but I have a much better picture of what I need to know, and what it would take to finish learning it.

The course I’m currently taking (“Exploratory Data Analysis”), like the others in the series, is what’s been referred to as a MOOC, or “massive open online course”, open at no charge to anyone in the world who wants to participate over the Internet. The instructors provide video lectures and create the quizzes and class projects but are not otherwise directly involved; the students provide help to each other in online discussion forums, assisted by “community TAs”, i.e., former students who volunteer as teaching assistants. MOOCs have recently been the subject of both hype and caution; now that I’ve been involved in them day-to-day I can provide a personal perspective on the controversy.

First, I think MOOCs are good for the sort of people who invented them in the first place: Internet-savvy folks with a technological bent who are motivated to learn something and have the necessary free time and background experience and knowledge to do so effectively. I’ve certainly appreciated having convenient no-charge access to a wide variety of classes, many of which (like the courses I’m taking now) have been put together by people who are leaders and innovators within their fields. I’d even consider paying for at least some of these courses (at $49 each) in order to get a more formal “verified certificate” (as opposed to a “statement of accomplishment”, and may do so for later courses within this series—potentially good news for Coursera, which in the end is a profit-making enterprise.

However for people who are not Internet-savvy, not all that motivated, and don’t have the necessary background then MOOCs aren’t a good choice. In fact, they’re about the worse choice there is. The dropout rates in MOOCs are extremely high (well above 90% in many cases), and the first serious test of MOOCs as a replacement for in-person college courses (at San Jose State University) was not a raging success. Which is not to say that online learning in general is doomed; in its more traditional forms (for example, University of Maryland University College) it’s doing quite fine.

MOOCs are simply the latest in a long line of attempts to move away from the traditional classroom model and “disrupt” the existing educational establishment. They’ll eventually find a place in the overall educational picture, most likely serving a variety of needs from “learning as hobby” (what I’m doing), high-end vocational education (what Coursera competitor Udacity seems to be morphing into), or as a supplement to traditional classes. But that’s for the future, and no real concern of mine; in the meantime I’m just trying to learn how to plot in R.


Is there something you’d like to learn (that I can teach)?

As some of you know, I like to learn new things. For example, I’m trying to re-learn some of the statistical knowledge I’ve forgotten over the years, and as a side project to that I’m learning the computer programming language Python (partly because it’s used by many folks who do scientific programming, and partly because it’s useful for other reasons). I’m also learning some about mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) as a follow-on to my research on Howard County Council redistricting.

One of the great things about today’s Internet is that there are lots of free resources for learning most anything on your own. For example, I’m learning Python from the free online textbook Think Python, and plan to use its companion text Think Stats to help re-learn probability and statistics. However the downside of the Internet is that it’s rather lonely to see at home trying to learn something by yourself.

As it happens my former employer, the Mozilla Foundation, is promoting the idea of learning in informal groups and settings, particularly having people learn about web technologies. One of the ideas they’re looking at is providing resources for people to hold their own “kitchen table” sessions—essentially small informal meetups where people can help their friends or family learn about the web and how to make things on it.

And that in turn made me think: Is there any one out there among my readers who might be interested in learning any of the same things I’m currently learning (or already know how to do)? I’m looking for an opportunity to get out of the house from time to time, and I’d be glad to meet informally to pass on whatever knowledge I can, whether it’s how to create ebooks, how to code programs or web pages (a hot topic now for many people), how to install and run GIS software on your PC, or even how to do your math homework. I’m particularly interested in talking with fellow bloggers, journalists, and others interested in researching local topics of interest using the Howard County datasets that the county government is increasingly making available.

Does any of this catch your fancy? If so, drop me a line at or talk to me at the April 11 Hocoblogs party at the Second Chance Saloon. See you there!

Should Howard County Board of Education candidates take the “Audrey Test”?

Technology and education is a funny topic. On the one hand technological innovation in education holds out the promise of helping students learn better and teachers teach better. Improving the productivity of teachers in particular I think is key to addressing long-term educational budget issues in Howard County and elsewhere.

On the other hand, there’s probably been more hype, blather, and outright b******t associated with technology in education than most other subjects. Every new technological innovation with some sort of educational application, from television to social networks, gets hailed as the one true path to revolutionizing education. (For example, I just got the latest issue of Wired magazine, in which a Stanford professor claims that Internet-enabled online learning will lead to there being only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education–all the rest having succumbed to the gale force winds of creative destruction.)

Technologists and entrepreneurs can be the worst offenders here, even more so than politicians, since they typically know much more about technology and business than they do about education. For those folks Audrey Watters, spurred on by Greg Wilson (whom I know from my Mozilla days), has created the “Audrey Test”, or more plainly, “what every techie should know about education“. The first part of it (the “yes/no questions”) is pretty specific to ed-tech entrepreneurs, but the rest of it (the “essay questions”) I think applies to anyone who’s ever been tempted to expound on the topic of technology in education, or on education in general for that matter.

It would be interesting to see how well our various Board of Education candidates would do on this test. Is anyone out there up for the challenge?

Changing my (blog) name, plus Plus

For those following this blog, note that I’ve changed the canonical site name from to Any links and feed URLs referencing the previous domain name will still work for the foreseeable future, but if and when you have time you may want to update your bookmark list, RSS newsreaders, and related information to reflect the new name.

A little history by way of background: I was around when the Internet was first being commercialized, and I had the opportunity to register for myself if I really wanted to. However I passed because I didn’t have a server to associate with it and I thought I needed to be running an actual server in order to register the name (though I’m not sure that was the case even then). When I finally got around to having a personal server in the late 1990s I found that had already been taken by a company that registered thousands of surname domains so that they could offer a shared domain service in which multiple people could have their own personal subdomains under a top-level domain:,, and so on. So I settled on the next best thing and registered instead for use as my primary domain, at the same time registering (as well as the .org and .net variants) to prevent anyone else from getting it.

When I first started a blog I hosted it at using custom blogging software. I later got tired of the management hassles involved, and moved my blog to, using the subdomain because I was still hosting other things at and couldn’t afford to dedicate the entire domain just to my blog. Since then though the blog has assumed more importance as my public face to the world, and I regretted having a somewhat unusual domain name for it. I’ve therefore decided to adopt the conventional approach and use as my primary blog name. (As noted above the old name of will continue to work, thanks to the magic of HTTP redirects.)

Note that my primary personal email address remains; I have no plans to change that. However I can also receive email at, so for example sending email to will get to the same inbox as I may switch over completely to for all uses in future, but in the meantime there’s no need to update your address book.

In other news, I’m now on Google Plus so you can add me to one of your circles if you’d like. I’ve been meaning to try Google Plus out before now, but I use Google Apps for my email and related services, and Google Plus wasn’t added to Google Apps until this week. I’ll publish notices of new blog posts to Google Plus, and maybe some other stuff from time to time.

Mozilla Education: Looking back and ahead

I’m currently working on putting together a draft plan for Mozilla Education activities in 2010. I’m a bit blocked on coming up with a coherent plan, so I thought I’d try to unblock myself by blogging my thoughts on the subject. These are informed by the recent feedback on Mozilla Education I solicited from several Mozilla folks, as well as the Mozilla Education 2009 report I wrote earlier. Note that I’m thinking out loud here, so this will be somewhat long and rambling.

Based on the feedback, the first point to address is: What is Mozilla Education, and what are its goals? The people I asked were familiar with what Dave Humphrey has been doing at Seneca College in terms of introducing students to Mozilla, but weren’t clear on what was going on beyond that. So, some explanation: “Mozilla Education” as a program started out as an effort by the Mozilla Foundation to take what was going on at Seneca and try to replicate it at other schools, on the assumption that the Seneca approach was worth replicating. (There seems to be general agreement on this, though as discussed below there are some limitations to this approach.)

The primary goal of Mozilla Education now and going forward is to help grow a new generation of Mozilla contributors by working with students and educators around the world. In the original Mozilla Education planning document we outlined another broader goal around promoting general innovation in education (“help to drive a new wave of participatory, student-led learning in fields like computer science, design and business”). As discussed in the progress report, we’ve since deemphasized that second goal and are now focusing Mozilla Education efforts primarily on the Mozilla project proper.

In the context of this discussion the term contributorcovers anyone who makes a significant positive impact on Mozilla worthy of recognition; this includes both technical and non-technical contributions, anything from doing heavy-duty Gecko hacking to helping out with marketing Firefox. Thus there are multiple types of students and educators who might participate in Mozilla Education, and multiple types of activities directed toward them. To provide a bit more focus, let’s follow the advice of one of the people who provided feedback and discuss 1) what has worked (and not worked) in the past and 2) how we might take what’s worked and establish scalable processes for the future.

The first thing to note is that the Seneca approach–integrating teaching of Mozilla technologies and practices directly into college and university courses–is proving to be somewhat replicable, with several schools and professors now teaching or planning to teach such courses. (See the progress report for a full list.) However the pure Seneca-style approach has some limitations, at least from the point of view of producing core Mozilla contributors: It has been successful in producing good contributors in such areas as build infrastructure and release engineering, but less so in terms of producing contributors who are hard-core Mozilla hackers.

In my opinion this is not so much a failing of the approach as it is a failing of academia: The schools that have been most open to integrating open source development work into the classroom (like Seneca) are the schools that focus more on practical instruction for job-seeking students. The high-end research universities that attract top-quality computer science students are the ones least interested in anything that smacks of vocational education.

Until and unless this situation changes, I suspect that the most realistic approach to growing full-time core Mozilla contributors (i.e., people who are good candidates for employment at the Mozilla Corporation or Mozilla Messaging) is as follows:

  • Continue to promote the Seneca approach to schools that are most likely to be receptive to it, and in particular try to target schools interested in teaching topics like quality assurance through automated testing, continuous integration, and other software engineering practices needed in large-scale projects like Mozilla.
  • For research-focused institutions, pursue a more lightweight approach of encouraging professors to have students do Mozilla-related senior projects and independent study, either based on self-generated ideas or based on tasks previously identified as being good student projects. Note this is lightweight only in the sense that it demands less of the school and its faculty; in practice this approach will be limited by the amount of effort existing Mozilla contributors can devote to helping students.
  • For recruitment of hard-core hackers continue to rely on recruiting students from top schools as Mozilla Corporation or Mozilla Messaging interns, outside the context of the Mozilla Education program proper. In this context it’s easier to justify the amount of time needed to bring such students up to speed.

Moving beyond the issue of growing new core contributors, a second topic is that of encouraging students to make technical contributions outside the context of the core Mozilla code. This could include working on Firefox or Thunderbird add-ons, developing web applications that make use of new Firefox features, working with the various technologies being prototyped by Mozilla Labs, and so on.

In the context of Mozilla Education the Processing for the Web project (based on processing.js) is the primary project of this type thus far, and is proving to be quite successful. Projects like this are somewhat peripheral to the core Mozilla activities around shipping new releases of Firefox, Thunderbird, etc. However they do get more people involved in working with Mozilla technologies and code, help to promote adoption of Mozilla products, and help support other Mozilla activities, whether technical or not. (For example, the Processing for the Web work could be used in the context of the “visualize the (open) web” project proposed as part of Mozilla Drumbeat.)

In my opinion doing projects like Processing for the Web is a useful and scalable approach for two reasons. First, it provides a common focus for lots of student work, so that the limited time of mentors can be leveraged across more people: A mentor can help many students at once, and students can help one another. Second, it leverages the time and expertise of people outside the project (in this case people like Al MacDonald who were already working on processing.js), further lessening the burden placed on core Mozilla contributors.

Are there other possible projects like Processing for the Web that could serve as a focus for student contributions? One possibility is a project around Dehydra, Pork, and similar code analysis and rewriting tools designed for large code bases like Mozilla’s. Like the Processing for the Web project, such a project could leverage an existing community of people outside of Mozilla, including developers working in the GCC project and others developing or working with advanced code analysis tools.

Another way to engage students is the design challenge approach pioneered by Mozilla Labs and then adopted in a Mozilla Education context for the Jetpack for Learning Design Challenge. Design challenges and similar contest-like events have proved successful at attracting student participants, including design students and others who are not programmers at heart. Keys to success include have a fairly tightly focused challenge, along with one or more expert mentors who can help the students realize their ideas.

Because they’re focused on leading-edge work not yet ready for incorporation into standard shipping products, the Mozilla Labs folks have some freedom and time available for running design challenges that other Mozilla core contributors don’t necessarily have. In the context of Mozilla Education running a design challenge would typically finding third party subject matter experts to help with the challenge, which in turns means that challenges would typically require additional funding over and beyond what the Mozilla Foundation spends on the basic Mozilla Education program.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on how Mozilla Education should approach engaging students to contribute outside the context of the core Mozilla codebase:

  • Sponsor at least three projects in 2010 that can each serve as a focus for engaging larger groups of students:
    • continuation of the Processing for the Web project
    • a new project around tools for analyzing and/or rewriting code, leveraging existing work by Taras Glek and others and done in loose cooperation with the GCC project or others
    • at least one other new project in an area yet to be determined.
  • Start at least one new Mozilla Education design challenge project in 2010, if (and only if) there is a suitable problem (e.g., one that doesn’t overlap with planned Mozilla Labs challenges) and funding can be found.
  • coordinate with Mozilla Labs to cross-promote Labs design challenges to the students involved in Mozilla Education activities, and vice versa.

Thus far I’ve primarily discussed engaging with CS students and others in related IT-centric programs. What about students in other areas, such as design or marketing? My feeling is that in 2010 at least Mozilla Education won’t play a major role in terms of growing core contributors in those areas, primarily because they’re outside the expertise of the main people working on Mozilla Education activities.

However that doesn’t mean that those areas have to be (or can be) ignored from a Mozilla Education point of view. One of the things we discussed in 2009 was the role of the proposed web site (currently instantiated as a set of pages on We’ve pulled back on some of the more expansive ideas for what that site might become. However I do think it makes sense to use it as a central point from which students can find information on Mozilla activities of potential interest to them. That leads to my final Mozilla Education proposed activity for 2010:

  • Establish and actively maintain a single high-profile page (e.g., that can serve as a portal to information about Mozilla activities of potential interest to students, including not only Mozilla Education material but also links to Mozilla Labs design challenges, student internship opportunities, etc.

Those are all my thoughts for now. If you have comments or questions about the above, please let me know. I’ll next boil this down into an actual plan.

One final day for Jetpack for Learning submissions

We received a lot of submissions for the Jetpack for Learning Design Challenge just prior to last night’s deadline. In order to accomodate last-minute entries, we’ve decided to further extend the deadline through midnight (US Pacific time) tonight, Tuesday, December 1. There will be no further extensions.

We’ve received a lot of good submissions thus far, and the Jetpack for Learning team is hard at work preparing for the next phase of the challenge.